Sunday, March 02, 2008

Future Vision: A Planet-Sized Computer

Imagine what it would be like if every household, every place of business, and every manufacturing plant had to generate its own electricity. What if there were no power companies that provided the juice to run your lights, appliances, and computers?

Every house would have its own generator. Every homeowner would be responsible for its upkeep and someone is the house would have to keep an eye on the utilization curve to avoid running the generator when not necessary. Business and industry would have much bigger headaches running their own power generating plants.

That’s the way electricity was heading until Thomas Edison and Samuel Insull built the first power grid. The power grid is a huge network of wires and transformers into which power companies pump their electricity. Controllers keep a balance between supply and demand within the grid so the system doesn’t get overloaded.

But if they do their jobs correctly, we don’t have to worry about it. We turn on a light switch and it gets brighter. We pop bread in the toaster and we get toast in three minutes. We turn on our high-definition televisions and see our favorite shows.

But when it comes to computing, everybody is doing it the way we would all be getting our electricity if Edison and company hadn’t developed the power grid. We all generate our own computing power. Every company and household that uses computers, which is the vast majority of us, must purchase its own computer box. And sometimes the size and power of those computers don’t really match our needs.

Nicholas Carr, in a new book, The Big Switch, imagines a world in which computing power is handled more like electricity is handled today, like a utility. When we connect to the Internet, what if our computer were used as part of a giant worldwide network of computers, adding its computing power to all the others. It would be like one hug planet-sized computer and everyone plugged into it would have a virtual supercomputer, the world’s largest one, at his or her fingertips.

Like the power grid, there would be people in charge of information flow, regulating it for peak times and lull times. Carr even believes that the World Wide Computer, as he calls it, would eventually gain a degree of artificial intelligence on its own.

Of course, Carr warns that the World Wide Computer won’t be the panacea to solve all the world’s problems. Electricity was supposed to do that 100 years ago, but it didn’t happen. It did, however, make our world a much better and more convenient place.

Big companies, for example, may not need to buy their own very expensive supercomputers. They could just purchase whatever computing power they needed from the grid. And individual users would pay a monthly fee determined solely by how much information and computing power they pulled off the World Wide computer.

There are downsides to having a computer the size of the planet. Imagine if it came down with a mega-virus or something. But if Carr’s vision comes true, computing power, like electricity, will change the world again. And most of the changes will be to make our lives much easier.

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